I surveyed the antiseptic warehouse I was in with practiced efficiency, calculating my chances of living out the day. I had but a single ally and we were standing in a crowd of fifteen stone-cold sociopaths who would kill us on a whim. Ruthless men and women who would happily wipe out entire villages or crowded restaurants for a few extra bucks, and who had the track records to prove it.
Almost two dozen high-paid mercenaries, each gripping an assault rifle, encircled the warehouse. Ten were employed by our psychopathic host, Ivan Farber, and the rest were employed by each of the various parties attending our private auction. Each of these killers for hire could be clearly seen on eight tiled screens evenly spaced around the room. Most were glancing at handheld monitors of their own, carrying out their charge of keeping their employers safe.
Small turret openings punctuated the warehouse. Openings I was only able to detect because I suspected they’d be there, as the painted patterns on the silvery walls had been painstakingly produced to conceal them. Our host had assured us that we couldn’t be any safer, but I had no doubt he could cause these automatic sentries in the wall to riddle anyone in the room with bullets if they made one false move.
I have to admit I found that quite troubling—because I planned to make all kinds of false moves.
Ivan Farber had seen to it that all participants were frisked on the way in, and all electronics had been removed, but good old-fashioned guns and knives were left untouched. If a melee did break out it would be carnage, with everyone suffering death by circular firing squad, except for the master of ceremonies, protected behind a hardened Plexiglas wall. Farber would shrug, have his men clean up the mess, and call in another group of buyers with deep pockets and ill intent.
Still, my one ally in the room, Ashley Flynn, was the best partner I’d ever had. And this would have been true even if she wasn’t the only partner I’d ever had. So I liked our odds. I figured we had a ninety-five-percent chance of survival. A hundred percent if we had calculated and prepared properly.
Zero percent if we hadn’t.
In most jobs, one learned from one’s mistakes. Unfortunately, in our job, a single mistake usually led to a swift death, and corpses were notoriously stubborn when it came to learning from bad experiences.
I glanced at Ashley standing beside me and let out a heavy sigh. My companion’s beauty was unsurpassed. Her complexion was perfect, with health and vitality blasting from every pore, which complemented her lithe, winsome figure and dazzling aquamarine eyes, strikingly large and dancing with a life of their own.
I was just turning thirty-one, and Ashley was still twenty-five, so we portrayed ourselves as quite the precocious power couple, accomplished well beyond our years. And we had pretended to be married now for over six months, from the first day she had joined the team.
Not that it had taken long for me to fall in love with her for real. She was like a black hole that irresistibly drew me to her in ways I hadn’t thought possible, and I was ultimately helpless to resist. Eventually, I even got her to fall for me, but that took a while longer.
Workplace romances were usually frowned upon, but in our case, when we were constantly being studied for any signs of treachery, our intimacy and mutual affection ensured no one would question the veracity of our marital status.
We were standing in a crowd of sixteen guests, who represented four groups of four. Each group consisted of two principals in charge of bidding for their organizations, and two guards, each wearing red, as Farber had requested, so he could instantly tell the players without need of a scorecard.
The warehouse was on the small side and empty, but its concrete floor had been covered in a beautiful blue epoxy, which shone almost as if it were radioactive, giving the warehouse the feel of a high-end garage owned by a multimillionaire to house a fleet of exotic cars.
“Okay, Ashley,” I said telepathically. “Here we go.”
Well, it wasn’t really telepathy. Not exactly. We both had ridiculously sophisticated supercomputer chips implanted in our brains that could convert thought into words and broadcast these words in our precise voices anywhere we wanted, including straight to the auditory centers of each other’s minds. But we had long since ceased thinking about the workings of the magic technology in our heads, which could do plenty of other tricks in addition to faux telepathy. It may have represented the very apex of human genius and achievement, but we had quickly taken it for granted.
“Hold on to your hat,” I added.
“Really, Noah?” she replied into my mind. “I’m not wearing a hat. And who says that anymore?”
“Besides,” she continued,“ the hard part was getting invited. It’s all downhill from here.”
“Downhill?” I repeated, unable to keep from rolling my eyes. “Maybe so, but in this case the hill is covered with bear traps and explosive mines.”
“Well, yeah,” she replied with a twinkle in her eye, “but at least the force of gravity will be on our side.” Somehow, the chip in her head was able to perfectly capture the amused tone of her telepathic words. “That’s all I’m saying.”
She was definitely a glass-half-full kind of woman.
Ivan Farber cleared his throat from behind his transparent Plexiglas shield to indicate he was ready to begin. The most-wanted arms dealer in the world nodded happily at the sixteen guests lined up in front of him.
Each group of four in the room, along with their contingent of mercenaries stationed outside, had been brought separately from a meeting place in Paris to the undisclosed location we were now in. Farber’s minions had exercised extreme care and deception while bringing each party here, ensuring that anyone trying to follow would lose the trail early on.
From the moment each journey had begun, all travelers had been enveloped in the ultimate dead-zone, ensuring that no signals, be it from phones, tracking devices, and so on could reach the outside world. This was still the case, although within the warehouse and immediate grounds, electronic signals still operated. Outside this radius all signals were immediately suppressed.
We could still communicate telepathically using our implants, even with no Wi-Fi or other carrier signals, but we’d be limited to a hundred yards.
We had no idea where we were. All Farber had told us was that we were in a secluded part of Switzerland.
“Welcome to a very exclusive gathering,” our host began in unaccented English. “Sorry for the lengthy trip and extensive precautions, but the need for these is obvious. You all know why you’re here, so I won’t bore you with long introductions. You were selected to get the first crack at obtaining a weapons system that is as unstoppable as it is surgical. One capable of killing a single target, or hundreds of targets, with a level of speed, stealth, coordination, and precision previously unimaginable.”
Farber paused for effect. “You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t have a fairly good grasp of what I’m about to offer: smart, autonomous fliers. Tiny, AI-powered merchants of death I’ve affectionately named Yondu drones.”
As he finished his sentence, the eight monitors in the room flickered. Rather than showing the guards outside, each monitor now showed the image of a weathered man with blue skin. The man’s head was completely bald, and was capped with a red-colored crest, or fin. A sleek silver arrow was hovering beside him, performing figure eights as if warming up before an important sporting event.
“For those of you who don’t know,” said our host, “this is an alien named Yondu. He’s a . . . colorful . . . character from an old movie called Guardians of the Galaxy, in possession of something called a Yaka arrow.”
This said, the image of Yondu began to move, as a short scene from the movie began to play. The footage showed the blue man facing dozens of armed and armored soldiers widely spread out before him in a vast, rolling valley.
Yondu looked calm and untroubled as he used a high-pitched whistle in conjunction with his crest to control the arrow. It sped through the air at a breathtaking pace, driving through armor and spacecraft alike to pierce the hearts of each of the numerous enemy combatants standing in his way. The arrow ricocheted instantly from one target to the next like a crazily accurate pinball traveling at fighter-jet speed. Then, just seconds after its mission had begun, the arrow dutifully flew back into Yondu’s hand as a broad swath of bodies finally fell dead across the land, doing so simultaneously in a spectacular show of carnage and choreography.
I had seen this movie several times over the years, but this scene was still an epic display of an efficient, unexpected, and unstoppable weapon.
“What is this about, Farber?” demanded a man with a deep voice and a Middle-Eastern accent. “You’re offering drones, not guided arrows. And we were promised a demonstration, not a movie trailer.”
The arms dealer’s eyes narrowed in anger, but he quickly got control of himself. “I was just getting to that,” he said irritably.
All around us the Guardians footage vanished from the monitors to be replaced once again by the images of dozens of mercs stationed around the building.
“It seems you’ve preempted my little surprise,” continued Farber. “As it turns out, I have been preparing a demonstration for after the video clip.”
“Excellent,” said a woman with a heavy Russian accent. “When can we see it?”
Ivan Farber lifted his right hand high over his head. “How about . . . now!” he said, snapping his fingers loudly.
Inside the room, all eight men wearing red collapsed to the floor in perfect unison, reducing the ranks of the guests by half. Just beyond the walls of the warehouse, sixteen other lifeless bodies dropped to the ground like marionettes whose strings had been cut.
And total pandemonium instantly erupted among the survivors.
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